The humble sandwich is toast if there is no Brexit deal.
Sure, if the talks break down there will be plenty of other things to worry about. Four million citizens on either side of the Channel wont know if they can carry on working and living where they are. Patients may be worrying whether their hospital has stockpiled the right drugs.
But aside from all that, where will Brits get their quintessential lunchtime snack?
Although the bread-based convenience food looks simple — a slice of ham, a hunk of cheese and some salad embraced within two slices of bread — it is in reality the product of a highly complex just-in-time supply chain to rival the most sophisticated auto manufacturer (well, almost.)
And there are plenty of hungry mouths to feed with what the Wall Street Journal has backhandely called Britains “biggest contribution to gastronomy.” (Fun fact: The Earl of Sandwich invented it in 1762 to provide a convenient finger food during gambling sessions.)
Brits purchase 4 billion of them a year from supermarkets. And while the country is largely self-sufficient when it comes to bread production, in a no-deal scenario with agricultural tariffs, new customs checks and delays at ports, the industry may end up struggling to earn a crust.
“I dont think consumers understand how complex and global our industry is,” said Jim Winship, director of the British Sandwich Association. “If we crash out of Europe, wed have problems even if only at border control because our industry works on a fresh basis and our products have a low shelf life. Ingredients could rot in the docks before getting to us.”
Here is how sandwich ingredients will be impacted by a no-deal Brexit:
The U.K. imports over 60 percent of the cheese it eats and much of that comes from Ireland. According to the Dairy Industry Ireland (formerly the Irish Dairy Industries Association), the U.K. bought 78,000 metric tons of Irish cheddar in 2016 — 82 percent of imports. Much of this cheddar is used in retail products such as sandwiches and in processed food.
“Irish cheddar is strongly represented in that industry and not only is there simply not enough British cheddar to meet demand, and nothing massively significant planned in the U.K. dairy industry to address that deficit, the British consumer is facing a significant hike in cheddar and sandwich prices,” said Conor Mulvihill, director of the Dairy Industry Ireland.
One major problem if there is no deal is tariffs. Under World Trade Organization rules, cheddar would be hit with a tariff of €1,671 per ton.
“Cheddar is a low-margin product — it costs about €3,000 a ton. You wont get a grain of cheddar into the U.K. with those tariffs. Wed be wiped out,” said Mulvihill.
Supplies of pork products such as ham and bacon are also vulnerable. Britain imports 60 percent of the pig meat it consumes, buying more than a million metric tons from abroad in 2016.
The Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), a levy board funded by farmers and growers, found that Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium were the main suppliers of pork products to the British market.
“The EU supplies virtually all the pork imported into the U.K., due to the high import tariffs on pork from elsewhere,” read an AHDB report on Brexits impact on the pork industry.
WTO tariffs on pork products range from €172 to €1,494 per ton, depending on the cut. If the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal, it would mean strict veterinary certifications and phytosanitary checks on every piece of ham or bacon brought in.
“Typically tariffs are higher for more processed products so there is that cost and all the certification that goes with it when meat moves from one country to another,” said Duncan Wyatt, AHDBs lead analyst on red meat.
“Relating to sandwiches, there is a risk that tuna could become very expensive” — Walter Anzer, director general of the British Importers & Distributors Association
“In the worst case scenario with Brexit, youd need to replace everything where trade moves easily around the EU to where the EU is exporting to a third country and that third county needs to dot every i and cross every t.”
A no-deal Brexit would also threaten supplies of another staple meat for British sandwiches — tuna. According to Sea Fish, a U.K. government fisheries agency, tuna was the third most important imported fish species in 2017, a trade worth £416,479.
“Relating to sandwiches, there is a risk that tuna could become very expensive,” said Walter Anzer, director general of the British Importers & Distributors Association, referring to a no-deal scenario.
He added that most tuna in U.K. sandwiches come from places with which the EU already has trade agreements. Whats more, it can often be processed in Spain before being exported on to large markets such as Britain or Germany.
The British Tomato Growers Association reported that Brits now eat around 500,000 metric tons of tomatos per year and demand is rising. But local producers cant keep up. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that British farmers produced 90,600 metric tons of tomatoes in 2017, meaning that around 82 percent comes from abroad, mostly Spain and the Netherlands.
The tomatoes need to move quickly from field to consumer to keep them fresh, but if a no-deal Brexit results in border delays, that just-in-time supply chain will break down.
“In order to make a fresh sandwich, you need fresh ingredients. A product has to be as fresh as it can possibly get before it is assembled and then distributed to shops all over the U.K. That infrastructure goes right back to the supply chain,” said Winship.
Lettuce and other leafy greens could also be noticeably absent from sandwiches in U.K. supermarkets in a no-deal scenario, especially during the winter months. According to the British government, the country imported 192,500 metric tons of lettuce in 2017, much of it from Spain. British farmers only produced 13,500 metric tons in the same time period.
“A n0-deal Brexit will affect leafy salads and British shoppers. Between October and April a substantial volume of leafy salads on U.K. retailers shelves comes from Murcia in Spain. The likely consequence of no deal is that slower borders will mean it will take longer for produce to come by road from Spain and anywhere in the EU that supplies fresh produce to the U.K. market,” said Dieter Lloyd, spokesperson for the British Leafy Salads Association.
“Our industry is quite unique from anything else and were concerned about the outcome if we drop out of Europe” — Jim Winship, director of the British Sandwich Association
“The more complex supply chain will mean higher prices for older produce on supermarket shelves and at wholesale markets.”
Winship of the British Sandwich Association is convinced that Brexit will change the face of his industry and its ability to satisfy the considerable British sandwich appetite.
“Theres a massive infrastructure in place to make sandwiches and get them to the consumer fresh. They are made today and in the shops today or tomorrow. Our industry is quite unique from anything else and were concerned about the outcome if we drop out of Europe.”
Emmet Livingstone contributed reporting.